Saturday, 7 March 2015

Confessions of an EdCamp Newbie


       I’m a newbie to EdCamps and it was with slight trepidation that I responded to my VP’s invite to attend the recent EdCamp in Victoria. I’m not feeling like I have time to pursue more pro-d on top of my personal pro-d that is my masters, but I've been curious about EdCamps as a pro-d activity and this one was happening in my backyard.  Besides all that, it’d be another thing to blog about!  A colleague from my school jumped on board and suddenly giving up my Saturday didn't seem quite so terrible.
       Saturday arrived, sunny and gorgeous, and Emily Kirzinger (@maczinger) and I met for an early breakfast to strategize, guzzle coffee and enjoy some good eats. Neither Emily nor I really knew what to expect from EdCamp, although we both had some vague idea how an EdCamp runs thanks to following past EdCAmp hashtags on Twitter.  We arrived to the venue, which happened to be our own school site, with time to review the topics that were growing on the board at the front.  

       I was surprised to learn that, while topics had been suggested in the weeks leading up to EdCamp, people were still encouraged to add to the list as they arrived on the day of the event. I didn't see anything on the board that related to “Anxiety in Ed”, a topic close to my passionate heart, but I bumped into Valerie Irvine (@_valeriei) who quickly scribbled “Anxiety and UDL” on a sheet of paper and shot up to the front to pin it on to the board before I knew what was happening. I’m glad she was there!  Once all the ideas were sorted and scheduled, I made my 3 choices for the day: Assessment and Parent Communication, Anxiety & Universal Design for Learning, and Developing School Culture.
       In my first session, Assessment and Parent Communication, I participated as an active listener, and was inspired by the fact that so many people want to do better.  The questions used to guide the discussion were:
  • What are people doing for assessment and parent communication?
  • What do they want to be doing?
  • Difference between elementary and middle school assessment/communication?
       What really struck me during the discussion, and in discussions we've had in our #tiegrad class since, is that as much as many educators and experts value a move away from standardized testing, grades and percentages, towards more formative assessment,many parents and post-secondary institutions maintain the value of "results". It can feel difficult to defend a shift in assessment and pedagogy, a shift that demonstrates valuing student engagement and the development of high level skills over teacher-centered learning and rote memorization, for example, when you are part of a minority. I can see that, personally, I would need to feel confident in my ability to defend it.  For me that confidence comes from starting small and gradually expanding shifts in practice to other areas of the curriculum and working with others who can lead and work alongside me, reinforces my belief that I can do it. I just get overwhelmed by the idea of jumping straight into the deep end. It’s clear that there is incredible support that comes from being part of a community of peers, sharing their vulnerability, learning and expertise as they explore and experiment with shifts in teaching practices. Deal maker: I can be modelling good learning to our students by pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, be it through assessment, parent communication, teaching and/or learning practices.

       I went from active listener in session 1 to actively sharing and questioning in session 2, Anxiety & Universal Design for Learning, with Valerie Irvine. It was really a good feeling to be able to share some of what I have learned as a parent of kids who have struggled with varying degrees of anxiety and as a teacher working with students presenting with anxiety; 80% of my caseload as a Case Manager are students who are burdened with anxiety, among other aspects of mental health.  
       Unfortunately we had no "notetaker" for our session, but the questions I recall include:
  • What does anxiety look like in your classrooms before the kids hit 'crisis mode',? (Crisis mode would be spiked absenteeism or refusal to attend, immobilizing anxiety. This is where most of the students I work with seem to be when they arrive on the doorstep of our school.)
  • What are you doing to decrease feelings of anxiety among your students?
  • How is information being shared (between community & school team members and between schools)?

       I could write a blog every week on #anxietyined, so to keep it concise, the  highlight points for me in this session were:
  • Remember, anxiety is a symptom, and it's on a continuum; it's a healthy aspect of our nervous system that sometimes can run amok. For some people, the running amok is a default setting with "fight or flight" kicking in at regular intervals.
  • Anxiety is frequently misunderstood (by teachers, by parents, by friends & family) and/or not recognized for what it is. It manifests in many different ways and can look very different from one person to the next. Behaviours can be internalized (think of a system shutdown) or externalized (acting out). To the observer, it can be very difficult, sometimes impossible, to see any sort of logic in the actions of the anxious individual from one situation to the next.
  • Anxiety frequently impedes comprehension, memory, processing speed, and other skills needed for learning.
  • Learners struggling with anxiety need options that allow access to learning without the triggers (e.g. flexibility in the "when" and "where" a student learns: offsite, via Skype, in the hallway or a separate room), that increase their own sense of control (providing voice & choice). As educators, we need to recognize, identify, and understand the triggers of each student presenting with anxiety and adapt for/accommodate students to the best of our ability.
  • In extreme cases, students won't be able to engage in academic tasks until their anxiety is improved. We have to be willing to meet them where they are.
I know we have a lot of work to do on this subject, as educators and parents, and most certainly, as a society, with no sign of #anxietyined decreasing. 

       My third and final session at #edcampvic focused on Developing School Culture. I really enjoyed this topic and the discussion that ensued. Again there was no assigned notetaker, but q's I remember were:
  • How can we develop connections/relationships between our school and its community?
  • What are schools doing to establish stronger connections and relationships within the school community?
  • How can parents, who have been actively involved K-8, be more involved when their kids reach high school? Some parents feel like they are shut out.
Having a school liaison officer for a husband, I think it's important for schools to consider how they can use their community leaders and members to support their learning community. Don't be afraid to ask your School Liaison Officer (SLO) for what you want; the relationship between youth and our law enforcement officers needs to have a positive context. It's so valuable for kids to see Police Officers as approachable and as real people. SLO Sgt Nicholas Ross of Saanich Police (@SaanichPDsloSgt) has done things like join the middle school mountain biking club and grade 6 band, connect seniors and elementary students through cycling, coached teams and attended talent shows.  Schools should consider bringing their local mayor or council member into their classroom as a guest reader, turning to the retired community to find a crossing guard or guest gardener, and the local bike shop to run a bike rodeo. To be part of the greater community, we need to reach out to connect to the people within it. The connections our youth can make in their own community can influence how they behave and the choices they make within that same community and beyond; it can also hugely impact the public perception of our youth, who are often misunderstood because of their hairstyle, their skateboard, or their teen-speak.  During our discussion, this tune from my childhood drifted into my head, and as simple as the message is, it still holds true. Who are the people in our neighbourhood, after all?

       We could easily change the word "neighbourhood" to "--- School" or "community", to emphasize the importance of knowing our own school population. By seeing them all as "our kids" rather than "my kids" (limited to my own class) helps to establish a strong sense of community within the school. During our session, one suggestion was that staff go through each student list and ensure that each individual student is personally connected to an adult in the building. The point was also made that we need to be mindful of our own relationships "in the building". As teachers, the tone of our interactions with other staff members and the strength of our own school-based professional learning community (if we are lucky enough to have one) will influence the relationships of our students. Are we leaving doors open, stepping outside of our comfort zones, encouraging and reassuring with each other, building authentic connections and working as a team? Think of the kind of community we want for our students and then emulate it:  walk the talk.

And suddenly, it was over. My first EdCamp experience came to a close.  While I was devastated to not win the door prize (an iPad mini), my day at #edcampvic was amazing. The sun was shining, the people were smiling, the sharing was invaluable, and I left feeling more than satisfied with the Saturday I had "sacrificed"; I had gained so much in the way of inspiration, ideas and connections from this day of teacher-driven professional development, that my perception of a sacrifice had seamlessly evolved into a day of investment. 

For reference, have a look at the #edcampvic Google doc which lists all the sessions, some of which have great notes attached to them!

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